BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyz police detained more than a dozen people on Thursday as they dispersed a hundreds-strong anti-Chinese rally in the capital, Bishkek, the biggest public protest to date in Central Asia against Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
Protesters who gathered on the central square demanded curbs on work permits for Chinese citizens as well as a reduction of Kyrgyz debt to China and called for other measures to reduce the Chinese presence, including a ban on Kyrgyz-Chinese marriages.
After the rally ran beyond its allotted time, dozens of protesters started moving toward a building which houses the president and parliament, at which point police started detaining some people and squeezing others out of the square.
Police declined to say how many people they had detained. A Reuters reporter at the scene saw them lead away more than a dozen.
Anti-Chinese sentiment has grown in the former Soviet republic of six million people since an incident at Bishkek’s main power plant a year ago caused a five-day blackout following its upgrade carried out by a Chinese firm. The firm has not been officially charged with any wrongdoing.
Hostility toward Beijing has also been fueled by reports of mass detentions of ethnic Kyrgyz - alongside fellow Turkic Muslims such as Uighurs and Kazakhs - in China’s western province of Xinjiang.
Beijing has defended its so-called “vocational education training centers”, which it says are part of a de-radicalization program in Xinjiang.
In 2016, three Chinese embassy staff were injured when a suicide bomber rammed the gates of the building in his car which then exploded. Bishkek blamed the attack on Uighur militants.
China is one of the biggest investors in Central Asia and a key trading partner for the region, which Beijing has made a key part of its Belt and Road development project.
Commenting on the protest, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov said in a statement that protesters had been misled by fearmongering and that the annual net influx of Chinese to Kyrgyzstan had been below 1,000 people in the last two years.
Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Gareth Jones